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Determining Success in Church Planting and Growth

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May we, as pastors, be content with whichever size of the church we are called to today and spend our energy learning to care for her well instead of obsessing over how to get her bigger.

In my early ministry years, I had the privilege of serving in several large church contexts. Large churches, like all churches, have their challenges, and over time, I became disillusioned by the big, attractional church model. When God called my wife and me to church planting, we were determined to do it differently. Among other plans, I vowed never to have a church larger than 300 members.

Our church grew slowly over the first two years—apparently too slowly for my liking. I remember surveying the room one Sunday after pouring our heart and soul into the worship gathering. There were 25 or 30 people present in a room that seated 250. I was frustrated with how few people God had brought us. By God’s grace, He spoke clearly to me through that event and reminded me to be content with the size of the church he saw fit for me to serve.

A few years later, our church was growing quickly, this time far faster and far bigger than my liking. God once again spoke to my heart and told me to stop telling Him what size of the church is ideal, only to be concerned with shepherding whomever He puts in front of me. The more I walked in that freedom and shared it with other pastors and church planters, the more I found myself asking, “What if we stopped measuring success in church planting by the speed of our growth and size of our church and instead started measuring success by our faithfulness to the gospel, mission, and personal character?” When we focus on those things first, then we can care for the body that God has put right in front of us, regardless of size.

How do you measure success as a church planter?

If you are a church planter, you have likely either been through a church planting residency, taken a church planting assessment, or at a minimum, read books about church planting. Any of these will have a set of markers or expectations that indicate success for the church plant. Though they may vary slightly, they will certainly all revolve around certain numbers of people at certain points in the early church planting journey. There is great wisdom in these early markers, which help by telling you when you are ready to move on to the next phase.

At this early stage of church planting, defining the path based on numerical growth markers makes a lot of sense. Getting to a point of sustainability requires a certain number of people willing to call a church home and commit to serve and give to that local church. In very general terms, about 100 people committed to a church creates a version of sustainability. However, I have found that after a body reaches this threshold, our grid for ongoing success is often deeply flawed.

Since the journey to sustainability requires an ongoing growth curve, our assumption is that a successful church is one that continues to grow in size indefinitely. We make statements like, “Healthy things grow.” Though it is true that healthy things keep growing, it is not always true that healthy things keep growing bigger and bigger.

Bigger is not always better

I find that we tend to define success in church terms by the cultural assumptions of what success should be, that bigger is always better. This perspective loses sight of a critical truth: church health, and therefore church success, is simply another example of the rhythms God built into creation. Whether in nature or even in our bodies, God’s created order was always about many parts of different sizes and functions working together to make a whole, an ecosystem, if you will. Why is it that when it comes to churches, we do not see it this way? Why are we constantly looking to the big churches to figure out how to get bigger? What if pastors stopped obsessing about how big they could get their churches to be and started spending their energy on seeing how healthy they might get the church that’s right in front of them to be? What if we were more concerned about caring for the church we have, understanding the dynamics of that size as an indicator of how to care for her well, instead of constantly trying to make her bigger? Would we not have far healthier pastors and far healthier churches?

Strategy changes with growth

Tim Keller wrote an article called “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics: How Strategy Changes with Growth” about church size dynamics that I have found incredibly helpful over the years. In it, he beautifully describes the unique dynamics in each size of the church and how to care best for that size. When we encounter this article, it is often used as a how-to guide on moving from one size dynamic to the next. That’s the American way, I suppose. I have found, though, that it holds the greatest impact for those seeking to better understand the church that’s right in front of them. Keller’s suggestions can help you understand how to shepherd what God has placed in front of you. If your church should get larger, then certainly adapt to shepherding larger. If it should remain at its current general size, then shepherd faithfully that which is in front of you. Learn to care for the church in such a way that will bring about the greatest version of health.

Remember, a garden best displays the glory of God when there are a few big trees creating shade, a bunch of medium plants bearing fruit, and thousands of little, vibrant flowers covering the ground everywhere. Caring for each of these unique parts of God’s garden is different. Caring for an oak tree looks different than caring for a wildflower. Yet each needs care, and the best kind of care to match the particular plant or tree. Just as it’s written in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, may the churches that make up our ecosystem in the body of Christ be just as diverse and beautiful, with each playing its own unique, critical part.

May we, as pastors, be content with whichever size of the church we are called to today and spend our energy learning to care for her well instead of obsessing over how to get her bigger.

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds[a] and teachers,[b]12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,[c] to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16, ESV)

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